Merric's Musings

Thoughts from an Australian Board Gamer and RPGer

Archive for Merric Blackman

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AD&D: Scribing Scrolls, Resurrection (non-)Survival, and other things

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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Ramping up my reviewing.
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Happily playing games for many, many years.
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The penultimate AD&D session of this year had six players in attendance, with characters ranging from first level to ninth level, and another trip into the depths of the Caverns of the Oracle. It turned out to be quite dangerous, as a number of hellhounds attacked the party as they got closer to the levels that Hextor’s followers hold in sway. The party consisted of a thief, a wizard, a low-level assassin and a number of clerics, and they were having trouble hitting the monsters – and the hellhounds were having little trouble hitting them!

One of the interesting things about the hellhounds is that they got to breathe fire every turn in addition to their regular attack – either 7 or 4 hit points per turn (depending on whether the player’s saving throw failed or was successful), and this stripped away the hit points very quickly. A number of characters went down and needed to be healed, and – in the end – Lee’s seventh level cleric was killed!

A quick trip to the capital and the high priest of his faith cost a little time and money, but it was all in vain, as Lee’s resurrection survival check failed! (A 98% on the dice!) Lee proceeded to roll well and created a new human ranger. I allow maximum hit points at first level, so Lee’s new character has 20 hit points.

Apart from that, the group faced orcs and ogres (which they retreated from), hobgoblins and trolls (which they slew, but didn’t press on as they were quite hurt) and found a door that summoned ghasts. Not really a problem for the group as they had three clerics at the time, but the clerics chose to stand in the centre of the room where the ghasts appeared! They were fortunate to not be surprised or to lose initiative... although then a few moved into melee with the turned ghasts only to be attacked (the assassin, one of the few bow-wielding characters, was paralysed for the rest of the combat!)

Another important part of the session was when the 7th level magic-users and clerics discovering they could now scribe scrolls – something that gave me some trouble in adjudicating as the AD&D DMG is somewhat vague about the costs involved. Time and success chances? No problem! How much it costs to make the ink? No idea!

The suggested cost for a scroll of protection from petrification includes a number of odd ingredients and likely 1,000 gold pieces worth of crushed gems. Possibly. Such a scroll sells on the open market for 10,000 gold pieces. Meanwhile, spell scrolls sell for 300 gp per spell level inscribed on the scroll. At the time, I assessed that the ink for one scroll would cost 1,000 gold pieces – and could be used for up to seven spells on that scroll.

Of course, getting home I wanted to research as to if there are any better costs in any of the supplemental materials, particularly FR4 The Magister, but though it has a section on creating magic items, it doesn’t really expand on the rules that much. The original game books list 100 gold pieces/spell level, so I will likely go with that for future scribing, although their time (1 week per spell level) will be discarded for the 1 day for spell level suggested in AD&D!

So, armed with scrolls of neutralise poison and knock, the group will be better equipped for their next descent into the dungeon. I do need to keep better track of time, and I need to consider what other penalties there are for the magic-users sitting out scribing – do the other characters go down without them? It may be best to let the group decide.

Lee’s new ranger managed to get a few experience points before the session came to an end. We’d started at about 5.30 pm, had a break for dinner, and it was 10.30 pm when I ended everything as it was really obvious that everyone was tired. At least, it was obvious that I was tired (as I was experiencing it), and the others had been arguing about how to deal with a trick stairwell. For twenty minutes. When the group loses the ability to make decisions, it’s time to call it a night!

I think I need to make a copy of the advice in the Players Handbook to give out to each of the players; in particular, the section on setting goals for each expedition. This is a very old-fashioned sort of mega-dungeon game (with a lot of funhouse encounters, because that’s the sort of DM I am), and the older advice still applies.

Actually, it’s very nice to see how many players at the table have copies of the Players Handbook – I think there were three or four copies there in addition to mine. (All Gygax Memorial editions. So is mine, though I have originals). The campaign is now over two years old, and I’ve switched back to running weekly sessions. Long may it continue!
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Mon Dec 23, 2013 12:41 pm
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Murder in Baldur's Gate: Launch Weekend - a preview

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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From gallery of MerricB
This weekend is the Launch Weekend for Murder in Baldur's Gate - well, more properly for the D&D Encounters season that uses that adventure, but the adventure itself will be out in a few days (for regular stores - it's been out for a bit longer for stores Wizards like more). For those stores participating, Wizards have sent them copies of a special adventure. It's the first encounter of the regular adventure, but expanded to give more interest and detail.

The adventure booklet is 16 pages, including front and back covers, of fairly thin glossy paper. It contains some background material, the adventure, and the monster stat blocks for three systems: 3.5E, 4E and D&D Next. Each stat block section takes up about a page and a half (with differing amounts of white space). There isn't much artwork - apart from the cover, there's two pages that list the NPCs which provides art for them. One of the NPCs doesn't get any art, strangely enough, but he's on the poster we got for the full season so I can just point at that if necessary.

It's Founder's Day in Baldur's Gate, and there's a celebration taking place, commemorating the event. The player characters have arrived to take jobs as caravan guards, but they've arrived a few days too early for that job, so they're just enjoying themselves. Well mostly - it might be free to enter the city, but every merchant is taking the opportunity to gouge the players of every copper they can get. The adventure starts with the group entering the Wide, the city's grand market square.

This adventure is all about what happens in the Wide on Founder's day, and my catchword for it all is "challenging". It's going to be challenging to run, and it's going to be challenging to play through. At its most basic, things start happening and things keep happening. Events build up and hit some fairly major marks, laying the groundwork for the full adventure to come. In theory the players could just sit back and watch, but that seems unlikely. Most D&D players will want to get involved. The challenge for the DM will be in handling it all: telling the story, giving proper descriptions of the chaos, and allowing everyone to have fun.

The main adventure for this session is laid out in a set of events, which read fairly well. They could be terribly boring if allowed to be, but they've got a lot more potential than that. I do have the distinct feeling that the game will play best if the DM uses the other elements given in the adventure: rules on crowd-handling and optional events to spice up things. Yes, you can concentrate on the main events, but allowing the players to react to lots of different things at once? Yeah, that looks like it will be even more fun.

But it will be challenging to run. The skills of the DM are incredibly important to this adventure; in particular, you need to judge the pacing of the session. Being able to add the right event at the right time will add greatly to the experience. The last city adventure I ran - the otherwise disappointing Storm over Neverwinter - had one session where the party and the DM were able to improvise greatly rather than just follow the rails. It was great fun. I think we could have the same fun with this adventure.

As a lead-in to Murder in Baldur's Gate, the adventure isn't complete. The events of the day are, but they raise the issues that will be dealt with in the full adventure, which you could play as part of D&D Encounters or as a home game. There's combat and role-playing and heroic deeds here... and a little of the grotesque. Vault of the Dracolich, despite leading into Search for the Diamond Staff felt complete in itself. This doesn't, as what it is doing is setting up the adventure to follow. Everything I've seen indicates that the full adventure will be pretty good, but, unfortunately, I've still got to wait a bit until I actually get to see it.

The launch event adventure also comes with a poster-map of the square (the other side shows the map of Baldur's Gate) if you want to use miniatures. The idea for the Launch Event is that you create characters first (1st level, in whichever session your DM is using) and then run the adventure. Honestly, I'd probably create characters before you get there or have pre-gens made up, as creating characters for five or six players in 30-40 minutes isn't all that easy in any of the three systems. (I'd manage it easily in AD&D!) I'm not really sure how long the event will take to play through. My initial reaction is "2 hours", and the documentation says "at least 2 hours". YMMV.

Incidentally, the only pre-gens available specifically for this are in the D&D Next playtest packet. Otherwise, the DMs will need to bring/create them for the 3.5E or 4E rulesets. (I'm pretty sure you'll be able to find a few online). One of my few significant regrets about this package is that it doesn't have a lot of backgrounds to aid the PCs in creating their characters. There might be more in the full adventure, but quite possibly not.

So, those are my initial impressions of the Murder in Baldur's Gate Launch Weekend package. I'll get a chance to run it this weekend, and I'll report back then as to how it went. I hope we'll all enjoy it.

Oh, and that silver-haired fellow on the cover of the adventure? That's Duke Abdel Adrian, the ruler of Baldur's Gate. You might also know him as the hero of the Baldur's Gate computer games. Well, he would have been if you weren't making your own character to play that role. In the "official" Forgotten Realms, it was Abdel Adrian who took on those challenges, and in his later life he's become one of the four rulers of the port city. He loves his adopted home, and the city-folk return that love. He's over a century old at this point, but still hale. His past is, unfortunately, still relevant...
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Wed Aug 14, 2013 2:36 pm
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Edge of the Empire woes

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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Ramping up my reviewing.
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I spent some of my free time today looking over my recently acquired copy of Edge of the Empire, the newest Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight Games. I haven’t picked up all that many of the rules yet, as I really didn’t have that long to look at it. Oh, that and I was rather frustrated by the awful state of much of the explanations and the poor editing of the book.

An example:
“Obligation plays a vital role in defining a Player Character. Defined simply, Obligation represents the debts a Player Character owes. These debt may be physical (money owed, services that must be repaid, or a binding contract) or they could be intangible (a feeling of responsibility for a friend’s well-being, the duty he feels to help his family, or a favour owed to someone else. A character’s actions can often be guided by his Obligation, and in Edge of the Empire, Obligation is a vital aspect of a character that can have very tangible effects on his development.”

Well, it’s wordy – but not too bad. However, then comes the next paragraph:
“During character creation, players must not only customize their characters by selecting skills or characteristics, but also by choosing what sort of Obligation the character has. An Obligation may be a large outstanding debt, the PC being blackmailed for services, owing a crime boss ‘favours’, having a price on his head, or being locked into a binding contract.”

I’m sorry – didn’t we get the definition of Obligation in just the previous paragraph? Why are we getting it again? It doesn’t really help that after these three introductory paragraphs we get a subheading, “What is Obligation?” Again? How many times do we need the same information?

In fact, this section is far more about how you choose your starting obligations, with a few words as to the format of the descriptions. This is poor layout and organisation, and it recurs throughout the book.

The section on the key mechanic of the game – the dice pool (which uses special dice) – suffers from the same long-winded descriptions. We get explanations of what the symbols mean. We learn how to construct a dice pool. And then we get a section on interpreting the pool – which includes explanations of what the symbols mean. Argh!

The book also flat-out lies to you:
“In Edge of the Empire, any character concept found within the Star Wars universe is possible.”

That is true, unless you want to play a Jedi, the rules for such being notably absent from the book.

There’s useful advice for the GM, of course:
“The GM should give the players an idea of what sort of campaign he intends to run for the players.”

Oh, that’s good. For a moment there, I was worried he was going to run a campaign for a completely different set of players. (The sentiment is good, but the phrasing is woeful. Either use ‘for them’ or omit the last three words).

A few oddities managed to make their way into the rules:

“After determining this initial value, further increases to a character’s Brawn rating do not increase his wound threshold”, and “After determining this initial value, increases to a character’s Brawn rating increase his soak value.” I love having part of the rules work differently to other parts. There’s probably a good reason for this design, but it reads oddly to my inexperienced eyes.

The greatest problem with the book, however, is the poor choice of font and size. Quite simply, it’s a book I find difficult to read as the text is relatively faint; certainly so compared to, well, about everything else I read, but certainly the 4E books. The Talent Trees in particular have a very small font which when combined with the narrowness and faintness of the font may require magnification for my elderly eyes.

We also get the wonderful decision of putting dark blue font on a black background for some quotations in chapter headings.

There may be a wonderful game in here, but the book is not making it easy to find.
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Wed Jul 31, 2013 12:37 pm
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Rules and my Roleplaying

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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I find that as I get older, I get a lot less tolerant of having large rulebooks with lots of rules. This isn't to say that I'm against all rules, but I much prefer, as a DM, to need to remember as few rules as possible. It's one of the reasons I've enjoyed 4E so much: it's actually a very light system at heart, with plenty of complexity added through easily digestible chunks. Monster design is a particular case in point: to run a 4E monster, apart from the base game rules, I just need to know what the conditions do: everything else is in the statblock.

This is in particular contrast to the Pathfinder RPG, which, I'm astonished to find, has actually made the job of running a monster significantly harder than 3.5E. There are a lot of good things I can say about Paizo's adventure and world design. However, Pathfinder has hit a level of rules complexity that I don't care for at all. I ran two full Pathfinder APs over the last year (Council of Thieves and Kingmaker) and all the flaws of 3.5E were there in spades, and then things were made worse by Paizo's stance to rules design. I didn't fight so hard to put the group back together after I had a run of cancellations in large part that I didn't want to have to struggle with Paizo's rules any more.

I'm thus somewhat disappointed that two new RPGs that I've been looking forward to: Edge of the Empire (FFG's Star Wars RPG) and Shadowrun 5E have horribly big rulebooks, both just shy of 500 pages. They might warrant such large book sizes, but I have quite a lot of other things to do apart from working my way through these tomes.

My AD&D campaign has now been running for about 19 months. It's still incredibly popular; I had nine players at the last session, and I dread to think how many will turn up this weekend! One of the lovely things about AD&D is that because I'm so familiar with the system, I can happily let the system get out of the way and I can concentrate on all the things that are - to me - fun. Interesting tricks, NPCs, exploration and the odd combat or five.

It's a completely different beast to my 4E Greyhawk game, which has now been running almost five years. (When did 4E come out? Since then). It's been delayed by various illnesses and other catastrophes, but we're moving towards the endgame with the group having hit 24th level, and the final foe (Tharizdun) having been revealed.

The biggest trouble with 4E is just length-of-combat, which takes away from exploration, NPCs, and interesting tricks. I'm having fun at the moment as I'm able to put in lots of references to classic adventures. The group are on their way to Verbobonc at present, following the trail of a lot of cultists that have power over elemental creatures. I wonder how many of the group are familiar enough with D&D lore that they get the reference? I believe there wouldn't be that many; I think I'm pretty unusual in my group with my fascination with early D&D lore.

I'm experiencing D&D Next mainly through the D&D Encounters program at present. I made a couple of attempts to play it in place of one of my regular other games, but eventually decided that it wasn't complete enough (this was a few playtest packets ago) and I really wanted to properly complete my 4E game. My experience with Next is coloured by the problems that Encounters brings to the table, as well as a player population that is happy to play Next as long as they don't have to read the rules.

There seems to be a very big gap between the capabilities of a 4th level and a 5th level character at present. It's at that level that Deadly Strike comes into play, which significantly increases the damage the martial characters deal. The group almost got completely slaughtered by chitines last session, but, in retrospect, it was mainly due to the fact that the group almost all have 4th level PCs. Character creation in the playtest documents is nowhere near as clear as it will get in the finished product, and I think the players are struggling with it. Personally, I don't have trouble with it, but then I'm an extremely experienced player of RPGs.

The other game I'm playing in is Martin's Deadlands Noir game, which is using the Savage Worlds system. We're two sessions in at the moment, and it's been heavily biased towards role-playing. The system itself is very basic - well, as much as I've seen of it, which has generally been skill checks. It's not a great distance away from the Serenity RPG, with the major difference being that Savage Worlds works while Serenity didn't. My character does break the system somewhat - he's both Attractive and Charismatic, which gives a +4 bonus to Negotiation checks. When you consider that a standard roll is "roll d8 and d6, take the higher", that bonus is astonishingly good.

The last session had only Peggy and Sarah playing in addition to myself, which was the three skill characters as opposed to the combat characters. We thus did a lot of role-playing and investigation; there was one (short) combat, which I ran away from and Sarah demonstrated how dangerous she is with a flower pot - although, unfortunately, not to the other side. Peggy and Sarah are much better at immersive role-playing than I am, although I can do okay for short periods. As I tired, I wandered back into the more descriptive style of role-playing ("I convince her that...") rather than the immersive style I started in ("Miss Jones, I'm desperately concerned that...") There was one great moment when I was completely tongue-tied and then got the giggles; Peggy and Sarah rather liked that moment. Despite both of them being better immersive role-players, I was the one leading the investigation for most of it... and thus doing a lot of the talking.

Apart from the two big books of Shadowrun and Edge of the Empire (the former only virtual, admittedly), I also picked up The First Doctor Sourcebook for the Doctor Who RPG by Cubicle 7. I'm planning on writing a review of it Real Soon Now, but before I did so I wanted to see what other people thought of the book. There's a good review on rpggeek in which the reviewer has found a couple of mechanical issues with the book. I didn't even notice! Part of this is due to the unfortunate fact that I haven't been able to play the game yet, and thus the mechanical elements aren't that familiar to me. A larger part is that I just don't care that much any more, especially as the book does one thing very well, and that thing is very important to me: it gives great advice on creating good RPG adventures and stories.

Are mechanics important? They certainly are, but I'm no longer obsessing over them as much as I once did. When they work, I'm happy. When they don't work, I'm sad, but I'm even less a tinkerer now with rules than I once was. There are systems out there that I'm very happy with and will run. D&D Next might see me not changing to a new version of D&D for the first time (I've gone from AD&D to 2E to 3E to 3.5E to 4E), but it won't annoy me if it's not to my taste; I've got systems that will work for various groups. My feeling is that Next will probably still work for me, but I won't be shattered if it doesn’t.
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Tue Jul 30, 2013 4:43 am
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A regular weekend's gaming

Merric Blackman
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Waubra
Victoria
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This weekend saw my regular gaming habits continue: D&D on Friday night and Saturday, and boardgaming to fill out the holes. I feel quite fortunate to be able to regularly play games with my friends, and it was really good to have Adam join us again on Friday night.

Yes, after a gap of a few months, Adam has rejoined my 4E Greyhawk game, as his situation still hasn't quite resolved itself enough - he's not in Melbourne full time and is still commuting from Ballarat. Thus, being in a Melbourne rpg group is a bit difficult. Getting his character, Max, back into the group was really good, especially as Josh couldn't join us and Adam allowed us to have a group of four. There's also a strong likelihood that Greg will join in as well, but this weekend ended up not being a good one for his family and he was unable to attend. From worrying about the state of the group I've suddenly gone to six players - if everyone can attend at once, which seems unlikely; it was a major problem with the campaign in recent months.

As a result, I can move into what really will be the endgame of the campaign. I've been running this game since 4E came out, and the group is now 24th level. It's been a very interrupted game at times, but there have been some great stories coming out from it. We finished off the 4E version of Tomb of Horrors two weeks ago, with Acererak being destroyed. My major change to the adventure was instead of having the final encounters be on the plane of the dead god Nerull (who is quite alive in my game), I placed it in a place sacred to Tharizdun. I've been building up to this point for a very long time, and so revelations in Friday's session that the Doomdreamer elementalists that have been annoying the party for many, many sessions worship Tharizdun was not such a surprise to the group.

It's funny: I'm not a fan of the conflation of Tharizdun and the Elder Elemental God that occurred through 2E and 3E, but I am very much a fan of the 4E cosmology (which I've adopted wholeheartedly for my Greyhawk game, though the gods remain as they were in my 1983 boxed set). Thus, it seems that elements of the 2E/3E version are making their way into the game. I had Archibald (Adam's old PC, now a major NPC villain) turn up again, and the session ended with the group chasing him - and the Doomdreamers - off towards Verbobonc. My group doesn't have the Greyhawk lore that I do, though they're familiar with the bits they've played through, so the full implications of that place aren't immediately apparent to them; I'll make sure they are in the next session. There's a little village nearby that I think they'll be visiting soon...

Saturday afternoon was given over to playing boardgames. Jack was unexpectedly there, so Rich, Sarah, Jack and I played through two of AEG's Tempest line of games - Mercante and Courtier. Sarah found Mercante frustrating, but mostly because she was unfamiliar with the play of the game and the distribution of goods in shipments. She still won; I played a horrible game. I'm quite fond of games with auctions, and this one is a very elegant design. It isn't without flaws, but I've enjoyed the two games I've played of it.

In comparison, I really understand Courtier, and I ran away the winner of it - something like 32 points to 17 (Jack and Sarah), with Rich a long, long way behind. It's not a natural fit for Rich at all, and he's as bad at playing it as I'm as good. The Queen got arrested very early into the game, so it wasn't long at all.

The evening AD&D game saw nine players around my table; that number didn't include me as DM! Callan was away, as were Shane and Brodie, which meant that Callan's Rifts game would have taken away... one player. I would have still had eight players. Madness! I hardly expected the game to be so popular when I began it a year and a half ago, but it has proved to be so.

Due to having quite a few new players, the last few sessions have been lower-level games (with the experienced players taking the part of their henchmen), and we've gone through Castle Caldwell and the Lost Island of Castanamir. I'm really looking forward to returning to my proper campaign; I've put the PCs on fairly high XP gains so they'll be ready. 4th level characters can join an 8th level AD&D game and contribute; 1st level characters are just a bit too fragile.o o

I've also moved entirely to running the game using the reprint books, although I certainly have a lot of original books at home, the newness of the books speaks for a lot. I really like the cover designs as well (and those of the adventure reprints). I've now twice used dndclassics.com to download adventures for the group as I wasn't originally expecting to be running low-level PCs. Having my new Surface Pro has been an absolute boon, as it's so easy to use in place of a printed module; certainly in comparison to my laptop. Last session, I brought in the printed version of C3, which is still more convenient, but I didn't have it with me when I began the game.

D&D Next I'm playing primarily through D&D Encounters at present. The current season is massively more entertaining for me than the last; the mere fact that there are different factions struggling over the staff and that the players HAVE BEEN ABLE TO FIND THAT OUT means a hell of a lot. The holidays and midwinter have impacted our numbers somewhat, but we're still regularly getting two tables and might get back to three in the near future. The biggest problem we've been having relates to DM availability; one of my DMs hasn't made it for four weeks and another now has a job that conflicts. I still have two other options, but as we rarely have good notice, we're often running the sessions without good preparation. (Thankfully, they haven't been that difficult).

The D&D Next system still has problems, but they mainly relate to the maths. I'm very worried about the number of high-damage Area Effect spells the NPCs can cast; which, when coupled with the difficulty of saving throws, can cause a party to go from fully healed to dead with a poor initiative roll. I'm hoping the D&D Next team manages to fix this in the next packet.

It's really interesting how much I'm enjoying AD&D (and I look at Next through those eyes). I also really like 4e, with the exception of how slow combat can go. 3E is something of a dead system to me at the moment, though I think a very large part of my disenchantment with it is due to Paizo's philosophy of encounter design, which often boils down to "do you have spell X? If so, you can win. Otherwise, you'll lose". That's part of 3E in general, but my experiences with Paizo adventures is that they take it to extremes.

With any luck, Next will avoid that trap. (I don't mind monsters you need specific ways to take down; I hate them when taking them down is required by the adventure and it's a common occurrence).
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Mon Jul 22, 2013 4:45 am
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Vault of the Dracolich (D&D Game Day) was AWESOME!

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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It's 1 am, and I'm just home after co-ordinating my FLGS's Worldwide D&D Game Day event. It was so much fun!

Vault of the Dracolich was a multi-table game by Wizards; D&D Next rules. Each group was exploring a different part of the same dungeon, with contact allowed between the groups (and encouraged). Eventually they joined together for a final encounter (although run as separate tables, what happened on one could affect the others).

My FLGS ended up with three tables participating, each with a DM and five players. And then I was running around like a crazy person between the tables keeping everything organised. I'd brought in enough miniatures for the event, and I gave them to the DMs depending on which encounters they were handling. And then I was dealing with other events that could affect the groups...

I won't say that much now because of the time difference; I think it's still going in other parts of the world, but I had a great time. We got some great stories out of it!

More later...
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Sat Jun 15, 2013 4:07 pm
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Storm over Neverwinter (D&D Encounters) retrospective - ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE!

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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D&D Encounters: Against the Cult of Chaos was fantastic. It was an adventure that pulled material from three other adventures and weaved it into a really coherent whole. What made it really great was how it allowed the players and the DM to create their own adventure - the town was well-detailed, and the PCs could investigate the segments of the adventure in the order they liked. When they talked to NPCs, there were enough notes for the DM to create memorable personalities and give the players real interactions and information.

This season that just finished, Storm over Neverwinter, was nowhere near that good. It was a return to the linear plotline of previous adventures, and, to make things worse, the role-playing and investigation elements are barely there. Basically, it ran like this:

Session 1: Interact with locals at the inn, then get attacked. This works; there's good building of suspense before everything starts.

Session 2: Investigate kidnapping, then brave cultist hideout. The investigation is fairly simple, and the descriptions of where the party end up aren't detailed enough (IMO), but the session still works.

Session 3: More investigation, then go to pub and get attacked. This session is where the adventure really begins to fall off the rails; the "investigation" beforehand makes little sense for the characters to be doing (why don't they just go home and do it the next morning?), and why are they waking people up to do it? It feels very forced. There's a key death here, but the group doesn't get to interact with the NPC in this session enough for it to be felt.

Session 4: Chasing people through the streets worked well as I took what was there and added a lot of humour and danger to it, and then there's a combat.

Session 5: There's a lot of follow-up hooks for the players, with very few actual details on what the DM should do if they try to follow them up. Then you have them trying to get into a stronghold - which is fun - but it's quite possible to end the session without any combat at all, due to a lack of doors to the final chamber.

Session 6: A straight-up fight with no role-playing. And, in D&D Next, not a particularly interesting one. It probably played better in 4E.

Session 7: A straight-up fight with no role-playing. More interesting than the last.

Session 8: Very limited role-playing (hampered by the players not having a clue what was going on), and an insane fight in the D&D Next version.

I'm really feeling that this adventure worked best if (a) the players are big fans of the Forgotten Realms and thus can recognise the familiar Neverwinter faces (we're not), and (b) you like combat a lot.

It felt railroady, and though most Encounters seasons are railroads (they need to be), this one felt more forced than most.

I just hope that the Game Day adventure is better, because Storm over Neverwinter was FUCKING AWFUL!

The final session was probably a lot better in 4E, but whoever was doing the Next conversion didn't pay that much attention to the monsters' abilities. As the battle started, the players rolled really low and lost initiative. Then Karis cast her Storm Burst spell and dealt about 25 damage to everyone who failed a save. Not surprisingly, most characters failed it and took a bunch of damage and were knocked prone. Her husband folled up with a Fireball spell for about a further 20 damage. And then the dragon flew in and breathed poison gas on the group for a yet another 20 damage or so.

How many hit points do 4th level pregens have? It's in the range 25-50. Now, this is meant to be against a party of five 6th level characters, but even in that case, you're not talking about all that many extra hit points. Even making all three saving throws you take half damage...

Now, because I'm an experienced DM, that's not how it ran. I held off on the dragon arriving, I stopped casting area effect spells once the party started falling over, and I was generally nice to the party. (Josh wasn't so nice, and may have had a TPK. It was going that way, but I didn't see the end). But the insane thing about this rash of area effect spells? They could cast them again... and again... and again. Well, Karis couldn't cast more than two Storm Bursts, but then she would move to lightning bolt, so not much damage lost. And the design of the encounter put everyone close together and made it very difficult to spread out.

Yuck!

When the monsters were hit, they tended to go down quickly - real glass cannons, especally as by Level 6 (which most of the PCs were), their Deadly Strike made for some impressive damage, especially as a few criticals were rolled.

At the end of it all, the players looked at each other and asked me what had just happened - not just the encounter, but the entire season. The plot was opaque to them. Why was the wizard being attacked by the cultists and then aiding them? While there are answers, they didn't come up in-game, which is where they needed to be.

The next challenge will be D&D Game Day, assuming that Wizards are able to get the adventure to us in time. We haven't got it yet, so there's four days left for it to arrive...
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Mon Jun 10, 2013 1:54 pm
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Musings on System Mastery in D&D

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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Ramping up my reviewing.
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Happily playing games for many, many years.
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One of the most interesting things about running campaigns of AD&D, D&D Next, D&D 4E and Pathfinder is being able to compare the level of rules knowledge I need as a DM to run the systems. I'll try and set out in this post a few comparisons. This also includes thoughts on what knowledge a player needs to play the system.

AD&D
AD&D comes from a tradition where the DM was the only one allowed the rulebooks, and the players were under the mercy of the DM. This is putting it harsher than actual play of AD&D eventuated, but you can see aspects of it in the forewords and introductions to the books. In any case, it set the stage for the DM needing to know all the rules and the players needing very little. In fact, the DM doesn't really need very much knowledge to run AD&D: the primary knowledge base is quite small, consisting mostly of the rules for combat with a few exploration rules to keep in mind.

In addition to the basic rules of the game, the AD&D DM running an adventure will come up against the monster stat blocks. Mostly, these are quite easy to interpret needing little more knowledge than the basic rules. There are three instances where more knowledge is needed: Class abilities, Spells, Magic Items and Monster abilities.

Class abilities are - for the most part - pretty minor. Most of the classes have few abilities that the DM actually needs to memorize to run the monster, and he could probably get away with looking up them during play. Spells are more important, but there are so few effective spells in AD&D that the most significant ones (magic missile, sleep, lightning bolt and fireball) could be memorized; more obscure spells would need looking up. Magic items tend to be obvious (protection and weapons), but look-up is probably required for most of the other items. Monster abilities would rarely be spelled out in full in a stat block, so a copy of the appropriate Monster Manual would be needed - assuming the DM hadn't memorised them. Of course, many monsters had no abilities worth mentioning.

Adjudicating player abilities tended (in my case at least) to make me very aware of what their abilities were and did with no need for book checking. You'll see most of the thief skills again and again, and they're not hard in any case. Magic-users brewing potions required book searching, but of course is infrequent.

So:
DM knowledge of core rules, major class abilities and spells.
DM lookup of obscure spells and class abilities, monster abilities
DM at finger-tips: attack charts, saving throws, monster stats (in adventure or on screen).

Books to run: Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, Monster Manual, DM Screen

Pathfinder
Pathfinder derives from the tradition where the DM knows everything. Unfortunately, there's a lot more the DM has to know! In fact, Pathfinder requires preparation from the DM like no other RPG in my experience.

Like all RPGs, the DM needs to know the basic rules of the game. These are far more extensive than those of AD&D, but the basics of combat aren't that hard. Lookup of special manoeuvres and skill uses beyond the basics are probably necessary for most DMs - they are for me, despite the 8 years of 3E and 1 year of weekly PF. The big difference comes when you get to player character abilities: in AD&D, there are so few that I can remember most of them. In PF, there are so very many options, that we've moved a lot more to the players keeping track of how they work and the DM nodding and saying, "I see... can I have a look at the APG to confirm that?" Of course, with repeated play these powers will become known, but There Is Always More(tm)!

Monster stat-blocks are likely to need research and a fair bit of rules knowledge. The AC, MV, HD, hp, Atk and Damage of AD&D is a lot more simple than what you get in Pathfinder. The biggest difficulty comes from all the hidden information. Consider the following feats and special qualites from a monster in a recent PF publication:

Quote:
Feats Back to Back (UC), Combat Expertise, Deceitful, Defensive Combat Training, Improved Initiative, Improved Trip, Judgment Surge (UM), Weapon Focus (longsword)
SQ armor training 1, cunning initiative, guileful lore (UM) +3, judgment 2/day, misdirection (UM) (chaotic good), necessary lies (UM), solo tactics
The level of system mastery you need to understand all those terms is quite astonishingly high. I expect there are PF GMs out there who do know all these terms like the back of their hand - I had a really good knowledge of 3E, after all - but I also suspect that a lot of PF GMs research abilities before they play an adventure, look them up during an adventure... or even just ignore them. (Having a tablet and access to the internet makes PF play a lot, lot easier, I believe).

So:
DM knowledge of core rules, major class abilities and some spells.
DM research of monster abilities
DM look-up of spells, magic items, and class abilities
DM at fingertips: basic stat blocks (with look-up/research needed to interpret all details).
Player Reference of player options

It should be noted that current Pathfinder releases assume you own nine or ten books (or have access to the internet and the PRD). This is a departure from 3.5E, where Wizards assumed that you owned the three core books and nothing else.

Books to run: Players Handbook, GameMastery Guide, Bestiary 1, Bestiary 2, Bestiary 3, Advanced Player's Guide, Ultimate Magic, Ultimate Combat, Ultimate Equipment, Inner Sea World Guide, GM Screen... or an iPad with a link to the PRD.

D&D 4E
Fourth Edition took D&D to a point where the DM needed to know things the least - at least as a proportion of the rules. 4E requires a slightly larger knowledge base than AD&D in terms of basic rules (with how to interpret powers being one part of the additional rules needed), but sheds the need for knowledge of spells, class abilities and powers. It also empowers the players to interpret their own abilities - and makes it easy to describe them to the DM - by using a much cleaner and structured language. The trade-off comes in complexity: monsters and powers are nowhere near as complex as they are in 3E or PF, although the basic monsters tend to be able to do more than just attack.

The other trade-off comes in space: a 4E adventure will normally give the entire statblock (PF will often just give a page reference). So, the natural flow of writing an adventure is interrupted. Mind you, PF can have that trouble as well with unique creatures. (Kyuss!) 4E also experimented with the formatting of adventures, with results that often left a lot to be desired... some late 4E adventures tend to use monster vault references and read a lot better.

The most complicated essential part of the 4E system are probably the conditions, which are handily reprinted on my DM Screen. Players will generally have full explanation of powers on their character sheets, so books are often required only between sessions (preparation and levelling-up!), or very occasionally for looking up how a skill works. Thus, assuming you've got a published adventure, what you need to run it might only be the DM Screen! I've certainly run a lot of games like that. These days, I have the Rules Compendium as well... and my computer for adventures I write myself for easy access to the monster and treasure lists.

So:
DM knowledge of core rules
Player knowledge of player character abilities
DM at fingertips: monster and magic item stats

Books to Run: Rules Compendium, DM Screen.
Books to Run (expanded): Rules Compendium, Monster Vault, Mordenkainen's Magnificent Mansion, DM Screen.

D&D Next
Actually analysing D&D Next is harder, as it is still a lot in flux. My impression from what I've run is that the rules knowledge and look-up is nowhere near as onerous as what is in Pathfinder, but there's more of it than in 4E. Monsters tend to have special abilities that are spelt out in the adventure blocks, but spells use references. Monsters don't have feats, which makes "hidden" information less of a problem.

I can certainly tell our unfamiliarity with the rules by how much we had to look up for player abilities - the major point of confusion. I expect that players will tend to know more about their characters than the DM, but the DM will need to learn certain abilities to judge the action. For instance, the restrictions on a druid whilst wildshaping.

I'll leave off the quick summary as I'm not sure how much will apply when the next packet comes along!

So, is there anything I missed or misinterpreted? None of the approaches is dogmatically wrong, for each enables certain things whilst making other things harder (or impossible). What is your preference for a system and the knowledge required to run it... and where that knowledge is found?
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Thu Apr 11, 2013 4:04 am
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Now running "Way of the Wicked", and a year with Pathfinder!

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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I noticed recently that my Pathfinder group has now been running for more than a year. That's a bit terrifying, especially as Pathfinder is more of a system that I endure rather than actually like. I run it mainly for the players, and so that I can see how good the adventures are. We've finished both the Council of Thieves and Kingmaker adventure paths, and now we're playing through the Way of the Wicked, an adventure path for evil characters by Fire Mountain Games.

So far, we've been having a lot of fun with it. We're approaching the end of the second adventure, the group is 8th level, and enjoying fending off adventurers as they attempt to complete a ritual. The adventures have required a lot of adjudication from me as the judge, because actually running combats between the intruders and first level minions belonging to the group is something I don't particularly want to do, but a little common sense goes a long way - as well as thirty years of experience with D&D.

I'm very happy to see that the sixth part of the adventure, The Wages of Sin, is finally available. I was terrified that it would be released after we reached it, but such is not the case. Indeed, our recent sessions have been very disrupted by holidays, work and travel. One of my players is in England at the moment, so we've just lost three sessions in a row!

As is my standard procedure with the Adventure Paths now, I'm happily ignoring any mention of XP and just giving levels to the players so they stay at about the right place. I see that there are a few subsystems for running evil organisations as well, but - again - I'm happily ignoring them. My experience with such rules (Fame Points in Council of Thieves, the Kingdom rules and Army rules in Kingmaker) is such that I expect them to be badly developed, if they were at all, and winging it would be better. They occasionally make a useful first approximation, but not much more than that. Rules that are really a game into themselves require a lot of testing, and most role-playing companies don't have the time - or the skill - to do it properly.

Because the group are evil, I'm actually not so worried with the lack of balance against the monsters, although a group of good adventurers did manage to give them some trouble. The lack of balance between actual characters is, at this point, something that the players can worry about rather than me. The only player who really seems to be pushing the boundaries is Michael, with his fighter dealing about 25-35 points of damage per round. It's not so bad now, but it was when he was first level and his damage was still very high. He's achieving the damage through a two-handed weapon which he power attacks with, without power attack penalties to hit and with bonus damage. Only one attack per round, but 2d12+20 or thereabouts is pretty impressive.

My 4E campaign should soon enter the ultimate section of the Tomb of Horrors, and my AD&D campaign is reaching level 9. So, all's good in my gaming world.
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Tue Apr 9, 2013 8:02 am
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One Size Fits None: Pathfinder Craft and Profession skills

Merric Blackman
Australia
Waubra
Victoria
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Ramping up my reviewing.
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One of the questionable decisions made in 3E and carried over into Pathfinder was the inclusion of the Craft and Profession skills. The trouble with these skills comes less from a character being able to take them, but rather with what they can do with them once they have them.

Consider one character, a barrister. Another character is a farmer. Both have the appropriate skill at first level, say at +6. Which means that both make, on average, 8 gold pieces per week.

Which is basically, crap. It's not how the world works at all. What we have here is a gamist construct just so we can give some usefulness to the Profession skill - but doesn't actually represent the world at all.

Likewise, the Craft skill requires immense amounts of time to make items, in no way related to the real world time taken to craft them. It's a artifice for the game, just so we get a value, rather than it being realistic.

So, what use are these skills? Basically they're there to make us feel good. "Look, ma! I'm a lawyer!" And for the very occasional check when being a lawyer actually matters and the DM can set a DC that has some relation to the difficulty of the task. Possibly.

The Perform skill has much the same problem; except it's actually linked to a class's abilities, so - because the Bard wants to max out Perform - it becomes basically meaningless. Why not just pay attention to the Bard's level?

When a skill's mechanics fall over in such a manner, it's time to reevaluate why the skill is in the game. And, frankly, the level-based skills of 3E and Pathfinder don't really gel well with the world outside the dungeon.
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Wed Oct 24, 2012 5:45 am
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